Fifteen years ago, New London Varsity Softball Coach Tony Porath asked his friend Dave Rohde to attend an informational meeting about tournament softball for kids.
Neither of them knew it at the time, from there a youth softball legacy would begin.
In the mid 90's Rohde, Porath, and Jodi Brennan worked for the NL Park and Recreation Department putting on a Wednesday night educational softball clinic. The program was run through the department and kids got a chance to work on basic skills for 6-7 weeks in the summer.
In 1995, Porath had heard about a traveling league in Kimberly for girls age 13 and under. He asked Rohde to attend a meeting to gather more information.
"So I go to this meeting in Kimberly thinking I'm just going to get information ," explained Rohde. By the time he left he was a member of the league with a schedule in hand, and no guaranteed home field to play on.
Rohde remembers that night well.
"When I walked into the meeting they were looking at me and I was looking at them, I kind of felt like I was crashing a party," explained Rohde.
After introductions were made they passed out the information, went over rules, proposed timelines and provided other information. Then the coaches got together to discuss schedules.
"Towards the end I'm looking at this piece of paper and they had us scheduled," said Rohde as he replayed his look of surprise. "We had no coach, no uniforms, we had no equipment, we didn't even have a team," he said with a reminiscent smile and long, hardy chuckle.
"I went back to Tony and said, "Tony, we're in the league. We're going to have to do something."
They ran an ad campaign through school announcements, the newspaper and Buyers' Guide to announce tryouts for a youth softball tournament team for New London.
Rohde recalls a good turnout. "Our first problem was solved," said Rohde. Enough girls came out to have two teams, but they combined them into one. "We took 16 girls one week and 16 more girls the second week and alternated," he explained.
The New London Men's Club pitched in and bought the team t-shirts and the New London Booster Club helped pay for their tournament fees. Jeff Prey, who was active in the New London Youth Baseball Association, helped them round up some old equipment and other supporters helped them buy bats and new softballs."
Rohde, a modest man who doesn't like to admit it, also occasionally dipped into his own pocketbook to pay for things. "We had to pay for the umpires when we had home games," explained Rohde. "I think we gave them something like ten bucks for a game. That's why I always stressed to the parents and coaches to take it easy on the umpires," said Rohde. "A lot of times they were high school kids and really, they weren't getting paid very much."
By nature Rohdes is not a controversial guy. Those who have worked with him over the years know that for him, it's all about the kids and giving them a positive experience.
Despite starting from scratch, the first year went well.
"They were a very inexperienced but very athletic team," Rohde recalled. "They held their own out there. In fact that group (NLHS Class of 1999) eventually went on to win the Conference Championship in their junior year," said Rohde.
"We had a decent fielding team, otherwise we would have really gotten pulverized that first year," he said. We really noticed it the next two summers (96-97). Coaches would come up to us and tell us how good our girls were at fielding the ball," said Rohde. "I'd tell them, we get a lot of practice on it because we weren't real strong in pitching early on."
During the 1997 off-season, Rohde had a conversation with Tom Schroeder, a parent, about the idea of starting up a City League for girls' softball, instead of driving all over to play tournaments. Tom volunteered to coach.
That next year Rohde talked to interested parents, potential coaches and sponsors. He approached Randy Rusch at the 1998 State Boys Basketball Championship and he agreed to sponsor a team.
"Cline-Hansen was the first business to sponsor a team. Next Mid-Town, Coppersmith Foods and New London Bottling joined in," reports Rohde. It cost $50 to sponsor a team and the girls paid $10 for the year.
A city league was born by the summer of 1998.
"It wasn't a very big league but at least they were playing every week," said Rohde. They had four teams from New London and invited two additional teams from Weyauwega the first year.
"It worked out. We just wanted to give those kids some playing experience," explained Rohde.
By 1999 we expanded and added three new teams because it was so successful the first year," he said. "After a while, sponsors started to approach us."
The Booster Club continued their support and also paid for any out of town tournament games.
The next step was to open it up to younger girls, reports Rohde. In 2000 they started a junior league for third and fourth grade girls, while giving the fifth grade girls a chance to play up or down one level.
By 2002, the program had grown to a size that required a board of directors to function and the Park Director at the time suggested forming an association. From there a very involved group of parents, coaches, and community supporters formed the New London Girl's Youth Softball Association (NLGYSA).
By 2003, Rohde's teaching career was also calling him in new directions. He remained deeply connected to the New London community as a volunteer for the program, but needed to take a step back and focus on his own pursuits.
Rohde continued to help out at tournaments and other events.
Mike O'Connell, an NLGYSA board member, recently spoke at a ceremony honoring Rohde for his continued contributions to the sport.
"Even though Dave is not currently active in the day-to-day business of the association, he can often be seen keeping the score book at varsity games or volunteering his time at one of our youth tournaments during the summer," said O'Connell.
"You always knew when Dave was here helping prep the field, because you could see those big "ugly barefoot" prints in the ball diamond," added O'Connell.
"I never liked wearing shoes," said Rohde, with an ear to ear grin and hardy laugh.
O'Connell put him on the spot with another surprise that day when he asked Rohde to pull the string in the unveiling of the new batting cages the association built at Memorial Park.
As Rohde stepped up to the string and pulled the covering off, it revealed a sign that reads, "Dave Rohde Batting Cages at Memorial Park." Rohde turned and blushed as a crowd of cheering parents, coaches and players gave applause.
New London Bulldog Co-Varsity Coaches Tony Porath and Laura Turner were among those cheering at the dedication as well as members of the varsity, JV and freshman softball teams. There were also dozens of the girls there who are currently involved in the Junior and Senior softball league, along with their families.
"Dave has been involved in softball for almost 20 years," said Porath. "He has always been about the kids and has always had positive things to say about each player. He made sure every girl got a chance to play."
The footprint Dave Rohde and others have left on the New London softball diamond goes well beyond the surface of the clay and deeper, into the heart of a program that's made a difference in hundreds of lives over the years.
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